By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu staff writer
Jan. 28 marked the 25th anniversary of the accident that took the lives of Ellison Onizuka and six crewmates. In Little Tokyo, the monument dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger attracted more attention than usual because of a large wreath placed next to it — an annual tradition.
To observe the anniversary, the Onizuka Memorial Board, which oversees the memorial, has decided to refurbish the model of the Challenger, which stands atop a base containing plaques dedicated to the crew. The shuttle is 12.5 feet tall, and the entire model, including boosters and fuel tank, is more than 18 feet.
“It’s deteriorated quite a bit,” said Allen Murakoshi, president of the board. “We noticed it a couple of years ago … There’s also work that needs to be done on the electrical. Right now we’re in the process of doing all the planning. Hopefully it will be done in three, four months maybe. The city is involved in our planning, so we’re working with the Community Redevelopment Agency.”
The model was built in 1990 by Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company in Hawthorne. “ He basically obtained the specifications from North American, who built the shuttle,” Murakoshi said. “This model is to (one-tenth) scale, and the paint that you see is the exact paint that you would have seen on the Challenger …
“We noticed that there’s also some separation on some of the parts, there’s erosion on some of the paint, and what we plan to do is remove the model temporarily and take it to the shop, where they can do a better job of refurbishing it. At the same time we will check the internal structural integrity of the model.”
He noted that astronauts who have seen the model say it is “exactly like the Challenger was at that time.”
Murakoshi, who has been on the 13-member board since 1994, inspected the monument along with Vice President Ted Tashima and Treasurer Herb Omura, both of whom are original board members.
The original president, Matt Matsuoka, knew Onizuka and his family personally. He was invited to witness the launch of the Challenger but was unable to attend.
Like the Onizuka Memorial Committee on Hawaii’s Big Island, the Los Angeles group sponsors an annual Space Science Day for young people during spring break. It started at University of Southern California and was moved to El Camino College in 1999.
“Our primary intent for having Space Science Day is to follow Ellison Onizuka’s dream,” Murakoshi explained. “He wanted to give the message to the young kids that no matter how large your dream is, it’s always achievable. He wanted them to get very interested in science, technology, so we decided that we should have a conference where we can invite the kids.
“We have approximately 1,000 students attending at El Camino College, and we have various breakout sessions covering various technologies and science. We always have a guest astronaut from NASA in Houston. We also have astronauts from the Japanese space agency, JAXA. They … talk about Ellison, talk about the space program. Then we have a breakout session where the students in attendance can speak directly to the astronaut.”
Onizuka became the first Japanese American in space in 1985 during a mission for the Defense Department on the shuttle Discovery. That year, he served as grand marshal of the Nisei Week Parade. After the tragedy, Weller Street was renamed Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street.
“The merchants around Weller Court decided that they wanted something significant to have in memory of the Challenger crew … Through fundraising by the merchants here as well as other people, they were able to raise the funds to build this monument,” Murakoshi said.
“This monument gets a lot of visibility,” he added. “We see students come to the monument and teachers explainin the shuttle program. It’s before their time, so the young students of today don’t quite remember Challenger and Astronaut Onizuka. So what we try to do is keep the memory alive.”